UFC welterweight Kamaru Usman faces the biggest challenge in his MMA career to date as he takes on Demian Maia in the main event of UFC Fight night 129 tonight (Sat., May 19, 2018) in Santiago, Chile.
But “The Nigerian Nightmare” believes that after years of grueling hard work, it’s his time now – regardless of who’s in front of him.
For a wrestler who entered the fight game with no striking experience whatsoever, Usman reflected on his journey in MMA in a recent interview with FanSided’s Spencer E. Kyte, where he sports a 12-1 record overall and remains undefeated in the UFC with seven wins in a row. It wasn’t always easy, however, as he was initially thrown to the wolves at the formerly touted Blakczilians camp in Florida:
“I was thrown into the deep end right away. You’re in a room with Tyrone Spong, ‘Suga’ Rashad Evans, Anthony Johnson, Cosmo Alexandre, Michael Johnson, JZ Cavalcante, Jorge Santiago and you have to survive in that room and I came in as a wrestler, that’s it.
“I had no striking. I had never boxed before, amateur or professional. I came in as strictly as a wrestler and you’re getting beat up and smashed.
Usman credits former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans as his mentor, someone who has helped guide the welterweight and navigate the politics of the fight game.
Evans and Usman met while training at the now-defunct Blackzillians camp, where the two trained together at length. Like Evans, Usman entered the UFC strictly as a wrestler, and has had to develop his striking along the way just like “Suga” Rashad:
“My mentor is ‘Suga’ Rashad Evans and I’ve been on the road with him. I’ve done this whole process with him countless times, including where he’s headlining a pay-per-view and I did his media tour with him, I did the workouts with him, I traveled with him, so I’ve seen it first-hand.
“He’s essentially prepared me for these moments and so how ironic is it that to fly out to get here, he drove me to the airport?”
Usman’s striking has indeed come a long way since making his UFC debut in 2015. Usman scored his first ever one-punch knockout over Sergio Moraes last year, and has shown huge improvements in his stand-up game with every fight:
“But then you get to a point where you’re not getting smashed as much. Then you get to a point where you’re holding your own. And then you get to a point where that round was kind of even and then where I’m winning rounds against these guys and these guys are like, ‘Yo – you’re going to be the best.’”
Usman also said he actually had asked for submission specialist Demian Maia years ago and called the Brazilian out after defeating Warlley Alves in Maia’s hometown of Sao Paulo:
“I asked for Demian two years ago when he was looked at as unstoppable. I would have liked to have gotten him at that point, but it is what it is.
“Demian Maia is Demian Maia – he’s a legend in the game and he’s been in the game a long time. Nothing but respect for him, but it’s my time to take over and showcase that it’s my time now.”
Usman and Maia will headline the UFC’s first-ever event in Chile at UFC Fight Night 129.
It’s Usman’s first fight with a true top-ranked challenger after several elite welterweights reportedly turned him down, something that has been wearing on the surging wrestler:
“I’ve been disappointed so many times to where I’ve learned and I don’t have expectations anymore. There’s not a name because I don’t want to disappoint myself anymore. I did it with Demian Maia. I did it with (Rafael dos Anjos). I did it with Colby (Covington).
“It makes it challenging because I didn’t get into this to just be a fighter because I can’t get a job anywhere else. I’m educated. I went to college. I can get a job and do something else, but I do this to compete and so when those guys above me are not willing to give me that opportunity to compete and continue to elevate towards that title, it’s extremely frustrating and it kills my buzz for wanting to continue to do this.
“It’s starting to show now that guys are visibly not trying to fight me and it’s been hard to get to this point,” he adds. “I’ve said I want to be champion and I’m not here to fight just anybody – I’m here to fight the best, move up and continue to elevate, so it’s up to the UFC to find that guy to elevate me toward that title because no one has been able to solve the puzzle yet.
“Demian Maia went on a 7-0 run and got a title shot. (With a victory on Saturday night), I’m going to be on an 8-0 run, so we’ll see what happens.”
At the end of the day, Usman wants to win in dominant fashion no matter how he has to do it in order to send a message to the UFC and the rest of the division:
“If everything goes according to plan, I’m dominating from start to finish. Whether it ends with a submission, by KO, by five-round beating – that’s what I aim to do. I am going to be dominant from start to finish.”